Speaking up at meetings (when your culture doesn't do that)

If you work across cultures, you probably anticipate having to adapt – but this can be easier said than done. One trouble spot for global workers at U.S. companies is meetings, where many organizations expect employees to participate even if they are young, new, or inexperienced. To be fair, this skill can be difficult even for Americans to master, depending on their personality and their organization's culture. However, the gap is greatest for people from other countries, who must not only perform a new behavior but also wrap their heads around the values that inform it. 

Understanding cultural differences 

Speaking up in meetings is typical in many U.S. companies because it aligns with several of our most important values. For example, we are an extroverted society and we use energy, enthusiasm, and engagement as a proxy for competence and confidence – two other traits that we highly value. Similarly, when we see someone "go out on a limb" or take a risk, we start to think about them as having potential for future growth. Additionally, we are competitive and individualistic, and so we approach group settings like meetings not only as a chance to collaborate, but also to "separate ourselves from the pack" (show what makes us unique). Finally, we are egalitarian compared to many other countries, and this means that we typically do not limit workplace participation to one's exact title or role. 

This may make sense in theory, but in practice it can be bewildering for people who come from cultures that are more hierarchical, deferential, formal, interdependent, or reserved. For example, if you have been raised to think first and then speak, you may feel anxious about wasting the group's time with your unformed thoughts. If your culture tells you to respect hierarchy, you may feel you are violating social protocol by speaking in front of your superiors. If you are more concerned with group cohesion, it may feel rude to differentiate yourself in such a way. And if you are accustomed to being evaluated based on other factors – like the quality of your work, family connections, or technical skill – you may resent having to do this just to get your manager to notice you. 

Besides understanding these cultural differences, it can also be difficult to perform the behaviors properly. It is common for people from other countries to initially misunderstand the nuances of speaking up. For example, although it may seem arrogant, loud-mouthed, disrespectful, or unpolished to you, there is a way to do it that is polite, concise, and appropriate. And remember: a little bit of input can go a long way. You do not need to talk constantly or perfectly to get the benefits for your career. 

Learning to adapt 

Speaking up at meetings isn't something that comes naturally to everyone, but it's a skill you can develop. And while you're doing so, take heart: It is such a common challenge that we wrote a Harvard Business Review article about it. Click on the link for our insights and consider how they apply to your situation. Then, observe how people behave at your company, build connections with mentors, take small practice steps, and reflect on what works and doesn't work. Finally, if you'd like one-on-one feedback and advice, please contact us. We provide cultural coaching and are ready to help!